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Is it possible for a person to be the mentor of another, even if the latter were born twenty one years after the former’s death? The conventional answer to this question would be no, but then, I have always favored the unconventional. For indeed, if one is to go by the definition of mentor, “a trusted counselor or guide,” then I would have to say that the person of which I am thinking quite fits the bill. And that person would be Sir Winston Spencer Churchill.
Why is it exactly that Churchill, a man with no ostensible connection to a half-Ukrainian American High School student, exerts so great an influence upon me that I would not hesitate to call him my own “trusted guide?” Well, from the first time I “met” him in the pages of William Manchester’s The Last Lion, I could not help but notice the many similarities in both character and behavior between us. We share an insatiable appetite for history and politics; we love public speaking and complicated, sophisticated language, and are so un-spontaneous that we must practice our off-the-cuff remarks for the following day; we are deeply dedicated to the Anglo-American “Special Relationship”; we read while enjoying piping-hot baths.
However, something is still missing. For similarities are one thing; guidance is a far different matter, and, of course, it is entirely rational for one to say that a dead man cannot provide this. I would answer by saying that Churchill does not fulfill the role of mentor through taking part in my life; rather, through his actions, through his speeches, and through his beliefs, he provides a map for a perplexed, troubled young man who is still struggling with who he is, and what he would like to achieve.
For Churchill has, in fact, taught me the most important lesson of all: no matter how difficult life becomes, no matter how alone you are, surrender is not an option, and you can only give up when you are dead. As he once said to an audience at his old public school, Harrow, “Never give in – never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.” And he knew of what he spoke! Churchill took the reins of leadership in Britain at a time when it faced what was, without a doubt, absolute evil, and stood his ground. He did not give in to Hitler, Nazism, and “a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science”; instead he rallied his beleaguered, wounded, isolated nation, by saying, “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'” He did not curl up, he did not fade away. He stood firm, and he won.
As a young man coping with not only the normal angst of adolescence, but very real mental and physical challenges, Churchill’s example provides me with solace, for indeed, when stacked against the most diabolical regime ever to plague this earth, my own problems come out wanting. However, make no mistake, it is not the magnitude of what Churchill faced that truly impresses me. Rather, it is the manner in which he carried himself, even, no, especially, during the darkest days of defeat.
More than anything else, I believe, as others do, that Churchill was the embodiment of the High Victorian ideal. And so, it comes as no surprise to me that my Oxford Companion to Military History ends its entry on Churchill with the last half-stanza of my favorite poem, Rudyard Kipling’s “If”:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run
Yours is the Earth, and everything that’s in it
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
What Churchill’s life spurs me on to do is to finally follow the exhortations of the poem and run, even if, perhaps, the road ahead is rocky, and I do not know the way.
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